Starting a newsletter on the right foundation

Adding a newsletter subscription box to your website is no longer a complicated task. But this technical simplicity should not be confused with simplicity in running and maintaining a successful newsletter that can help you achieve your goals and that your audience really wants to read.

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April 29, 2021
Reading time 11 – 17 minutes

I’m sure that, as a creative person, you understand the power of catching people’s attention—be it via your creative artwork, a product you created, a photo or video you captured, or a written story that awakens deep emotions in those who read it.

Having a newsletter is like having someone’s phone number that you can text at any time, with the added benefit of writing once and distributing the same message to a few dozens (or even millions) of people. This makes email a powerful tool and one of the few digital communication methods that directly connects your message to the person interested in hearing it.

Of course, I’m not the only one knowing this, and neither are you. Anyone’s email can easily get overwhelmed by people or companies with the same goal—distribute their message to those interested.

Long gone are the days in which getting an email was an excitement. Now the inbox seems to become more crowded and harder to navigate. That’s why creating a newsletter is no easy feat and should not be taken lightly.

For almost nine months, we helped local creative entrepreneurs create digital homes for their businesses. During our collaboration, I noticed a big drive in implementing a subscription box on their website. While this shows that they understand the power of direct communication, this drive was not accompanied by a strategy on why, what, how, and when they should communicate with those looking to hear from them.

Without a clear strategy, you can leave room for all sorts of interpretations and frustrations on both ends—yours and your subscribers.

In this article, I will provide some guidance to help avoid the same mistakes and start this adventure with the right tools and strategies under your belt.

One of the first things you should tackle before comparing email sending services is to…

Give your newsletter a clear purpose

I can safely say that this is one of the most important and most skipped steps in implementing a newsletter on a website. From my experience, often, people go directly to adding a subscription box with no clear promise or intention behind it.

Going forward in this manner can bring many headaches for you and for the people who, although unaware of what’s going to happen next, trust you with their email address and hit the subscribe button.

Example of subscription box with no clear purpose.

What’s likely going to happen is that you will soon start feeling the pressure of sending something to your subscribers without actually knowing what to send and what they expect. Constantly having in the back of your head that people expect a message from you can become a burden.

As for the people who manage to subscribe to a mysterious newsletter, they will be caught off guard when out of nowhere, and after god-knows how many months, an email from you pops in their inbox.

To avoid such scenarios, take a bit of time to think about what you want your newsletter to be about. People need a clear value proposition from you to make room in their already crowded inbox. Plus, having a clear purpose in mind can give you a clear direction and sets the right expectation from the get-go.

If you have a hard time deciding what your newsletter should be about, I encourage you to start from what you already know or do.

You can build a newsletter where you share your views on the industry you are activating in, or talk about your struggles and find others who relate; you can use it to keep people up to date with what you do, invite them into your world, and help them understand the passion and drive behind the scenes, or provide helpful tips and tricks for others looking to get into the field.

Whatever it is, I suggest to…

Start small and make sure it’s doable

Don’t go overboard with your plans, and don’t try to hit two many birds with one stone. Since this (probably) is new ground for you, it’s best to start with one purpose in mind and move up from that.

Make your life easier, and don’t complicate things. Although you might feel the need to talk about numerous things with your audience, overpromising can soon hurt your ability to deliver on those promises.

For example, at Pixelgrade, we created the Upstairs community as a place where creative people speak about their journey and where people can interact with one another and discuss similar experiences. We started with this goal in mind because Oana and I are the ones deeply involved and stories are closer to our heart—we know we can manage it by ourselves with small interventions from our team members.

The same can be with your newsletter—make it about one thing (at least initially) and be confident that you can handle it by yourself or have the right people around who can pitch in. This strategy allows you to be focused and ensures you can…

Make a real commitment

Your days might already be packed with activities that keep your business, personal, and professional life afloat. And, as I already mentioned, running and maintaining a newsletter is no easy feat.

Therefore, think long and hard about what is required to have the newsletter up and kicking and make sure you figure out how you can fit it in the schedule and tasks you already have. Be honest about how much time you can invest, and take the time to figure out the day(s) of week or month when you can give the newsletter your undivided attention.

On top of that, people will want to interact with you, so expect replies and engagement from your subscribers. Hence, you must invest time checking and connecting with your audience. After all, that’s the whole point of having a direct communication method—to use it both ways.

Running and maintaining a newsletter can be more time-consuming than you think, so you must match your actual schedule to the goals and purpose you are trying to achieve by having this newsletter.

I suggest going as far as already blocking time frames in your calendar to see how you feel about it and check if it fits among your other activities.

Once you figure out how much time you can invest and merge it with the (initial) purpose, you will be on the right path of creating a real value proposition for those interested in subscribing.

But don’t keep it to yourself…

Tell people what to expect

Your audience needs to understand what they will receive and what’s expected of them in exchange for that email address. Stating your purpose loud and clear ensures everyone is on the same page.

The good thing is that, now that you tackled the steps I mentioned above, you can start outlining your promise to the website visitors you are looking to attract.

Start with detailing what you are going to send them via email. Be clear in your promise so there won’t be any misunderstandings. Don’t use complicated sentences that ultimately diffuse the message or make it harder to comprehend.

Next, make sure you explicitly mention when the newsletter is arriving in their inbox. Creating a time and frequency commitment will be helpful both ways—people will know when to expect to hear from you, and you’ll have a deadline and recurrence to keep you motivated.

To go a step further and give people a glimpse into your reasoning, it’s worth mentioning why you started this newsletter and what you want to achieve with it.

For example, let’s say you are creating handmade scented soy candles, similar to what Flair Scent does, one of our Rosa2 customers, and want to write a newsletter to share what’s it like to be a small creative business owner. During your time analysis, you realized that realistically speaking, you have can make it happen once a month.

Here’s what people can expect to read in the subscription box added on your website: “Once a month, I share details about the process and struggles I face when building my small business in the hopes that others find inspiration and learn from my mistakes.”

Subscription box with details around what, when, and why this newsletter exists.

All you have to do next is get down to work while you…

Make sure it speaks to who you are

As with any writing endeavor, the main roadblock comes from actually sitting down and writing the content. A lot of questions might pop into your head: “How should I address my audience? Should I be friendly or formal? Where to start?”

Hard questions, indeed, but they have a straightforward answer—write the same way you talk. We’re written many times on this subject (I mentioned that stories are closer to our heart, didn’t I?) and even created an ebook on how to improve your writing style, but it all comes down to being true to who you are.

Let’s say you publish a picture on Instagram. To create more context, you start writing a few lines, outlining a story around that photo. Well, when it comes to writing your newsletter, you should most certainly use the same writing style and migrate it over to email.

There’s no need for using words, expressions, or tone of voice that’s not in tune with who you are. Doing that will cause two things:

  1. your audience will see disconnection from your social media persona and the one in the emails, causing an inconsistent experience;
  2. your newsletter will suffer long term because it will be hard to keep up with a style that doesn’t feel like you. Soon enough, you will reach writer’s block, and you’ll have a hard time keeping your promise.
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Newsletters don’t just “live” on the internet isolated from everything else you do. It’s important to offer a consistent customer experience every step of the way and make sure the newsletter fits the overall design, writing style, and brand identity.

As long as you are true to yourself, sharing your thoughts with the world will become easier as time passes by, and the people interested in hearing from you will be able to find themselves in your stories.

Of course, all of this advice means nothing without an audience. Growing your list will be a long-term process, so…

Don’t get discouraged by the numbers

People use their email for all sorts of things: track and confirm online purchases, manage bills and subscriptions, read other newsletters, get notifications from different apps, communicate with other businesses or institutions, connect with like-minded people, apply for jobs, and the list goes on.

As you can imagine, your newsletter must convince people that what you have to say deserves its place among all the others. When you think about it this way, you soon realize that having 20 subscribers is a significant achievement. It means 20 people found you worthy of taking place in their (already crowded) inbox, and your thoughts deserving the hassle of having another email to manage.

The second thing your newsletter has to do is cut through the noise and convince people to read it time and time again. If you see a 15% open rate count it as a big achievement—you swayed a part of your audience to give your email a high enough importance on that given day.

Your newsletter is competing for attention, and these days attention is the number one currency in the digital world.

Every company, big and small, wants to get as much attention as possible out of any given day—Netflix wants you to keep watching, Facebook and Instagram to keep scrolling, Youtube to jump from one video to the other.

On top of all of these attention grabbers, there’s life with all its intricacies—working, spending time with family and friends, eating, exercising, and whatnot.

It’s easy to get discouraged when looking at the “competition,” but try to see the bigger picture. You managed to convince people that making room to read your emails among all that noise is worthwhile.

Although I’ve talked a lot about strategies, goals, audience, and so on, never forget to…

Have fun with it and experiment

With time, you’ll manage to integrate the newsletter into your workflow, which will soon become a habit. That’s when you’ll probably start to hit a few creative walls—sometimes your initial purpose doesn’t fit you anymore, or you feel the need to adjust the newsletter to the changes happening in your life and business.

My advice is to keep in mind that most people follow you first and then the stories and knowledge you pass on via your newsletter. Don’t be afraid to expand the initial scope and adventure into new realms to see where they take you.

If you feel like you need to share more personal stories, go ahead and do that. If you embark on a new venture and want to tell people about it, do it. As long as you keep the same tone of voice and are true to your values, I’m sure people will be excited to be along for the ride.

And if they aren’t willing to accept the change, I’m sure you will hear about it. Maybe your new direction requires a different audience, and you need to separate the two, or maybe people have no issue in jumping in and learning from your progress.

Either way, without experimenting, you won’t find out where you stand and what’s the next step. Test the waters, gather feedback, and figure out if you need to adjust your action plan.

That was a lot. Let’s recap the main ideas to make sure we’re on the same page:

  1. Start with a purpose in mind—give your newsletter a clear goal, and keep things narrow so you can be focused and motivated;
  2. Make sure you can handle it—start by writing about things you are most comfortable with, and come naturally to you; don’t complicate things, or you risk bailing out early;
  3. Commit and make sure it fits your schedule—running and maintaining a newsletter is no easy feat, so make sure right from the start that it’s something you can handle long term;
  4. Be honest and upfront with what you have to offer—don’t just place a subscription box without providing context. Inform your website visitors about what they will get, when you are going to knock on their digital door, and why you are doing it. Clear the air to make sure everyone’s on the same page;
  5. Match the newsletter to who you are—don’t create an alternate persona or put pressure in writing your newsletter a certain way just because you saw it somewhere else. By being yourself and writing the way you talk, you create a consistent experience for those who follow you, and that’s priceless;
  6. Don’t obsess over the numbers—everyone’s email is flooded with information left and right, not to mention all the other services and areas of our lives that get our attention. Keep your eyes on sending out a newsletter you are proud of, and people will follow;
  7. Play around with different ideas and see what sticks—avoid getting stuck into the same ways of doing things; your life can change, the things you did can no longer be sustainable, so don’t be afraid to adjust the course and have some fun along the way.

Newsletters are one of the most effective ways you can reach many people in a single shot. It also requires an action plan, commitment, drive, and, of course, other people interested in hearing from you.

The good thing is that if you start the journey equipped with the right tools and strategies, you will most certainly reach your goals. You just need to be patient and listen to feedback; after all, email opens a two-way communication channel.

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A question by Andrei, the author of this article:
What struggles have you encountered while trying to build your newsletter?

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